Pakistan’s Groundbreaking Benazir Income Support Program continues to grow

Today I spent the afternoon at the BISP regional office listening to the stories of women whose lives have been positively impacted by the income support, loans, and education benefit funds supplied to them through the Benazir Income Support Program. Read some background on the program here.

The program has recently received a lot of bad press in the Daily Mail, which complained that British taxpayers’ money was going to fund cash payments to Pakistanis through DFID, the UK Government’s development arm. However, the hit pieces in the DM said that the program was full of fraud and that middlemen were making money off collecting the cash for the poor women the program is meant to assist.

However, today’s meeting with BISP beneficiaries provided a fairer look at the program – from the mouths of the beneficiaries themselves. They were invited to speak at an ajrak-draped podium, in front of Marvi Memon, the chairperson of BISP, and World Bank gender expert Caren Grown and her team. BISP had used the World Bank poverty scorecard in 2009 to perform a survey in 16 districts across Pakistan. From this survey, they identified the poorest families for BISP benefits. Now, they’re launching the Poverty Survey in the remaining 131 districts of Pakistan. The earlier database was extremely valuable already, recognized as the premier source for information about the poorest people in Pakistan; this one will be definitive and will provide so many ways of examining the population in the absence of the national census.

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(BISP had used the World Bank poverty scorecard in 2009 to perform a survey in 16 districts across Pakistan. From this survey, they identified the poorest families for BISP benefits. Now, they’re launching the Poverty Survey in the remaining 131 districts of Pakistan. The earlier database was extremely valuable already; this one will be definitive.)

The women stepped up and spoke. Some were confident, others nervous. One woman from Tharparkar became so nervous when asked to tell us her name that she covered her face with her hands and said she couldn’t bring herself to tell us, but then she showed us the most beautiful blouses and shirts that she had made, as part of a home business she set up with a BISP loan.

Kulsoom from Lyari: I was kicked out of the house by my husband. I had to go live with my brother. I got a loan so I could open a shop. From that, now our conditions are much better.  I got a call from Bilawal House and that’s how I found out I could get the loan.

Huma from Landhi: i’ve been getting money since July, we didn’t have our own sewing machines, we have been able to buy our own machines to do our own work. I also got a loan. From this loan I could buy machines. Inshallah I’ll get more. Now I make Rs. 3000 a week. I make gents’ shirts.

Rashida from Thatta confidently proclaimed that she had been using the cash transfers, but she was saving up a small amount and putting it into a life insurance scheme. When pressed by Marvi Memon to explain, she said that she didn’t know how much she’d saved up – indicating that it might be a scam. Memon admitted that there were problems with fraud and corruption and that the BISP team was working hard to eliminate them.

Nazia from Hyderabad: I’ve been getting the card for 3 years. I have one child who’s constantly sick; six children, the girls are older, the boys younger. They used to go to private school but we had to take them out because we didn’t have the money. Now I can pay their schoolfees, three little children in private school/the older girls in government school. My child has kidney problems and we’ve been coming to Karachi for six months. He’ll have an operation next month. My eldest is in matric, the second are in class 6 and 7. I want my children to become something. I do sewing and earn money for the house from that. My husband was sick for 8 years and he’s been dead two years now. We are able to put the children back in school now because of BISP. I’m illiterate so I can’t use the ATM. I ask my sister’s children to come with me and they help me.

Another problem is that many merchants at the point of sale (through UBL’s Omni Network) are charging a fee of a couple of hundred rupees from everyone who gets money through the cash transfer. Memon said that her team would look into this too.

Nusrat from Lyari: I wasn’t even able to make my house run. My husband was sick for 8 years with cancer and I had two small children in school. But Benazir program cash transfer has helped me to relieve my problems. A neighbor told me about it so I went with her. I get an ATM with a balance transferred and someone else goes and takes the money out from the machine for me. I’m very happy. 

Nazia from Tando Adam/Hyderabad: I’ve been getting money for 3.5 years. I have 5 children. Three are in school, two are at home. My husband does machine-work. Everything is very expensive. There are a lot of expenditures. We’ve been able to manage with the income support. I spend the money on my children. 

After this section of the program, BISP launched its Women Empowerment Scheme. We were shown a documentary prepared by the BISP team which was going to be shown in BISP Beneficiary Committees that would be formed in every district: each committee would have 25 women who would get together and receive training, support, and more information about the program. This is not revolutionary, because women have always been organizing themselves in small committees at the grassroots level, but it is the first time that the federal government is reaching down to women at this level and offering this kind of organizing opportunity.

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The documentary itself consisted of a religious scholar telling women to be patient if they didn’t receive their rightful share of money in their households (I wondered why this was included; it would have been so much nicer if a scholar had talked about Bibi Khadija, peace be upon her, and what a great businesswoman she was). Then came an instructive section where you could see how to use an ATM and how to count money. It’s difficult to imagine that there are women who don’t know what a 50 rupee note looks like, but when you consider that many women have little to

Then came an instructive section where you could see how to use an ATM and how to count money. It’s difficult to imagine that there are women who don’t know what a 50 rupee note looks like, but when you consider that many women have little to no say in household earning or spending, it’s not an impossible scenario.

Finally, a doctor spoke on screen about nutrition and the importance of good nutrition for children, especially breastfeeding up until the age of six months. Pakistan is in an emergency with malnutrition and stunting, and it’s smart for BISP to address this through the video as well.

Interestingly, two women MPAs from the opposition PPP party walked in late to the program, sat themselves in the front row, and immediately began getting angry about the program. They complained the entire time that they’d never heard of BISP, which was suprising to me, because you’d have to actually be unconscious or dead to have missed the publicity and advertisements about it. I believe they just wanted to create trouble, though, and my suspicions were proved right when during the Q&A session they demanded to be told everything about the program. “Everything is already on the Web site, so it’s all transparent,” responded Memon. “As for informing the provincial assemblies, we’ve already sent letters and reports to the governors and chief ministers of each province. They are meant to inform you; I can only talk to the Senate and the National Assembly.”

This did not please the MPAs, and they flounced out shortly afterwards. But it is ridiculous to blame BISP for their own ignorance, or lack of interest, especially as they both proclaimed they had received “at least six” text messages telling them they’d been selected to receive money in the scheme. The implication being, of course, that the scheme was actually a scam, but Marvi countered this smoothly. “Those are fraudulent messages and we’re going after them.”

This was a small taste of what goes on all the time in Pakistani politics: jealousy and competitiveness, never mind the ordinary people that might be benefiting from the program. It is a real pity that when something good is happening in the country, there are others lined up to tear it down. Indeed, the program is not flawless and still has a long way to go, but I think it has real potential for alleviating poverty, as its impact report has already shown remarkable improvements in many poverty markers.

Despite this, the one thing that stayed with me was how each and every woman repeated was: “I’m so happy.” Happy that their lives were a little easier, that things were better for them, that they could run their households and put their children in school and pay for their books and uniforms. Some of the women wept when talking about this. Another woman’s daughter was summoned on stage and she burst into tears. No numbers can quantify this kind of impact.

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